Joan Didion does not believe in magic. Or, rather, she does not believe that life is magical in a rosy, fantastical way. The writer and journalist became known for her ability to distill the dark parts of living with her exceptionally crisp, lucid prose, from her description of a young child tripping on acid in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in the 1960s (“Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” 1968) to her meditation on grief after the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne (“The Year of Magical Thinking,” 2005), and her 39-year-old daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael (“Blue Nights,” 2011), less than two years later.
Though Didion, 85, has chronicled much of her own life in her work, we now get another view of the writer. In October 2017, the first-ever documentary about Didion premiered at the New York Film Festival (and is now streaming on Netflix); “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold” is directed by Didion’s nephew, the filmmaker and actor Griffin Dunne (“I Love Dick”), and produced by her grandniece, Annabelle Dunne.
Didion, who had long resisted being the subject of a documentary, granted her relatives use of a host of unseen material for the film, including personal photos, archival videos, and on-camera interviews. In this way, the film feels intimate, and is full of small, appealing anecdotes: Harrison Ford once worked as a carpenter at the Didion-Dunne home in Malibu, California; Warren Beatty harbored a massive crush on Didion; When Didion feels stuck on a manuscript, she places it, literally, in her freezer.
What “The Center Does Not Hold” does not do is push Didion into new emotional territory during her on-camera interviews; the film feels less like a tell-all and more like a love letter to her particular abilities—her stoicism, her unflinching reporter’s eye. This is bolstered by Dunne’s choice to structure the film around portions of Didion’s fiction and essays, read in voiceover by both the author and her editor, Shelley Wanger.
Through these terse, stinging passages, it’s clear that while Didion does not believe that life is inherently magical, she has lived for the magic of the moment where, as a journalist, you realize you’ve gotten the story. This is exemplified in what is perhaps the film’s most electrifying segment: Dunne asks his aunt how she felt witnessing the young girl on acid in San Francisco. She begins, “Well, it was”—then trails off, gesticulating with delicate, veined hands, settling on the story she wants to tell the viewer—“Let me tell you, it was gold. I mean, the long and the short of it is, you live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece,” she finishes with a small smile. “Good or bad.”